A new(er) documentary film by Idrissou Mora-Kpai follows the stories of Afro-Vietnamese orphans born of Vietnamese mothers and West African fathers – tirailleurs sénégalais – brought by the French to fight la sale guerre, mostly in today’s Viet Nam. The synopsis:
Through the story of Christophe, a 58-year-old Afro-Vietnamese man, the film reveals the little known history of African colonial soldiers enlisted to fight for the French in Indochina. Christophe was one of seven Afro-Vietnamese orphans adopted by one of those soldiers when he returned to Benin after the war. The film explores the long lasting impact of bringing together two populations who previously had no ties and sheds light on a frequent practice within colonial history, that of using one colonized people to repress the independence claims of another colonized people.
Told in Vietnam and Benin, the film gives space for the grown Afro-Vietnamese orphans to tell their stories, but also to explore the contradictions of the colonial order.
“The French sent us to fight their war for no good reason,” remarks one veteran in the trailer. “It was their enemy, not ours.”
You can see the full trailer here.
The French use of colonized peoples as soldiers has been the subject of feature length historical fiction before – notably in Ousmane Sembene’s Camp de Thiaroye (1988) – about a group of soldiers massacred by the French after fighting for France – and Rachid Bouchareb’s Days of Glory (2006) – about Algerian men who fought the Nazis in France. Now, a documentary lens has been brought to the phenomenon.
George Orwell, too, wrote about the tirailleurs sénégalais in his essay Marrakech. With a tone that betrays Orwell’s own prejudices, he describes a column of Senegalese soldiers on the march, and reflects:
But there is one thought which every white man (and in this connection it doesn’t matter twopence if he calls himself a Socialist) thinks when he sees a black army marching past. “How much longer can we go on kidding these people? How long before they turn their guns in the other direction?”
Isn’t it great to see cameras turned in the other direction?